A state senator is pushing for legislation that would make it a felony to be caught with 50 bags or more of heroin, a bill modeled from the testimony of Suffolk County law enforcement at a public hearing on prescription drug and heroin abuse.
State Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore), chairman of the Senate's Standing Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, said the bill would target dealers by charging those found with 50 bags and / or $300 worth of the drug with felony criminal possession of a controlled substance, presuming that a person carrying that much heroin intends to sell it.
Boyle, who on Monday was named chairman of a special heroin state task force, said the bill is part of the one-house State Senate budget. If the measure doesn't survive the Assembly, he plans to roll it into an omnibus heroin legislation package sponsored by colleagues.
"I think it's really time for our laws to catch up, to increase the penalties for heroin so we can put a bigger bite into the drug dealers who are putting this scourge in our communities," Boyle said in February.
In November, Det. Lt. John O'Brien, commanding officer of the Suffolk County Police narcotics squad, testified before lawmakers that his primary recommendation to fight what he described as a drug epidemic on Long Island is to confront those carrying that amount of heroin with jail time. Now, someone caught with 50 or more bags would be charged with a misdemeanor.
"Putting drug dealers away -- we're trying to reduce the supply. We're trying to arrest criminals that are supplying these drugs," O'Brien said in February. "The police department and all law enforcement want to separate the addict who needs help from the drug dealer who's profiting off it."
Anthony Rizzuto, provider relations representative for Seafield Center, an inpatient substance abuse treatment center in Westhampton, said there should be a careful distinction made between dealers and addicts who need treatment.
"I am not opposed to punishing people that are distributing drugs," said Rizzuto, an expert on substance abuse. But he added that "unfortunately, we have not been able to incarcerate our way out of this problem. If you look at the amount of people who are in jail for drug-related offenses, it's clear that incarceration is not rehabilitating people."
Some are skeptical. Threatening drug dealers with jail time "doesn't do any good, it never has," said Jeffrey A. Fagan, a professor at Columbia Law School who has taught drug law and policy.Fagan referenced the crack epidemic of the 1980s and '90s, whenthe financial rewards for selling the drug "were so great that the threat of jail time was not something that would deter young men without economic prospects anyway." He added that in a world where deals aren't being arranged on the street but via text message, "You're not going to find that many people with 50 bags of heroin on them."